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EPA OKs plan to bring DFW air quality up to standards

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has given preliminary approval to a controversial state ozone cleanup plan that regulators say will bring the Dallas-Fort Worth area into compliance with federal air-quality standards by next year.

The EPA will formally announce its decision at a news conference this afternoon. The decision will be published in the Federal Register, and the public will have 30 days to comment. Final approval would not come until the end of the year.

Still, the preliminary approval is an enormous victory for the nine-county region, which has not met federal ozone standards in decades and faces a June 2010 deadline to comply or face severe federal sanctions.

The D-FW area will be the first region in the country to have a federally approved ozone cleanup plan.

The approval also represents a sharp about-face for the EPA, which had been extremely critical of the so-called State Implementation Plan when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved it in May 2007. Richard Greene, the EPA regional administrator, sent a memo to state regulators warning them that the plan was flawed and may be too weak for the agency to approve.

But the EPA worked more than a year with state and regional leaders to revise the plan to make it strong. Now it is strong enough to slash 88 tons a day of ozone-forming pollutants – 40 tons more than proposed last year.

"That work -- a result of the North Texas can-do spirit -- has moved this clean-air plan across the goal line and makes it the first in the nation to gain EPA's proposal for approval," Greene said in a prepared statement.

Two voluntary programs are at the center of the plan. The first is the state's AirCheckTexas program, which this year has provided $21 million to repair or replace older, polluting cars and trucks in North Texas.

The other is the Texas Emission Reduction Plan, which pays to retrofit or replace diesel-powered off-road construction equipment with pollution controls. In the last six months the state has received a record $84 million in application requests in North Texas.

Other key provisions of the revised cleanup plan are new restrictions on emissions from compressor engines at natural gas drilling rigs, and an agreement to severely limit the use of an emissions trading program that allows power plants and others to emit pollution at levels that exceed permit limits.

But clean-air activists note that federal regulators still cannot show that ozone levels in Frisco, northeast of Fort Worth, and in Denton to the north, will meet the standards by the end of next year. All 19 ozone monitors in the region must meet the standard for the region to comply.

"It would be great if this fairly tale has a happy ending, but I don't think it's going to," said Jim Schermbeck with Downwinders at Risk. "It's very disappointing."

Approval of the plan promises to be a short-lived victory. The EPA in March significantly strengthened the federal ozone standard. While those new standards are not expected to go into effect for several years, the state will need to devise yet another clean-air plan in the next couple of years and propose even more extensive cuts in pollution from cars and other sources.

Still, ozone levels appear to be dropping in the D-FW region, according to state air-monitoring data. Last year was the mildest ozone season in at least a decade. And so far this year, ozone has exceeded the federal standard on five days, according to the data.

Eagle Mountain Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, has had the worst air quality, recording three bad ozone days in June, according to state data.